Payson House denied landmark designation after contentious discussion

1915 berryman street
Google/Courtesy
Though some Berkeley residents argued that the William H. and Esther L. Payson House, located at 1951 Berryman St., holds historical and architectural significance, the Landmarks Preservation Commission denied an application to designate it as a landmark.

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After contentious discussion among Berkeley residents, the Landmarks Preservation Commission denied landmark designation to the William H. and Esther L. Payson House during an online meeting Thursday.

Located at 1915 Berryman St. in North Berkeley, the Victorian-era house was built in 1889 by construction firm Lord & Boynton for William Payson, co-founder of the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley. Landmark proponents argued that the house’s builders and early owner denote historical and architectural significance that warrants landmark protections.

According to commission secretary Fatema Crane, however, staff members found prior to the hearing that the property lacks architectural and historical merit, as they could not identify the Payson House as a high artistic rendering of any style and determined that Payson’s achievements were not directly associated with his place of residence.

Architectural historian Daniella Thompson, who filed the landmark status application in early June, argued that the staff’s early assessment held the house to stricter standards than other local residential landmarks.

“The requirement to tie a house to an owner’s public activities may need to arise when considering national nomination, but not at the local level,” Thompson said during the meeting. “It’s not a national register nomination.”

Thompson added that Lord & Boynton’s founders, Carlos Lord and Ira Boynton, were “Berkeley pioneer master builders” who joined forces for only one year, resulting in a unique architectural style for every house they built. According to Thompson, only five of Lord & Boynton’s projects are still standing, and the commission designated one of them as a landmark last month.

While proponents of landmark status argued for the house’s historical and aesthetic significance, opponents alleged that the landmarking process was being used to prevent the construction of affordable housing in the area.

Architect Brad Gunkel submitted plans to the commission in May for the house’s demolition in favor of 10 housing units, one of which would be reserved for a “very low-income” family.

Gunkel said he believes the house currently provides “squalor” living conditions and that designating the house would be an insult to well-meaning landmarking efforts.

Mark Hulbert, Gunkel’s historical research consultant, said he agreed with the staff’s assessment to reject the landmark application.

“From my evaluation, in terms of potential design, the existing residential building is a mix of parts without clear origins,” Hulbert said during the meeting. “The subsequent landmark application immediately struck me as inadequate and even absurd.”

Though the commission reminded public commenters that it does not make decisions about housing, many Berkeley residents believed housing to be a central tension in this landmark designation debate.

Several alleged that the landmarking effort was a political move by neighbors to preserve property values and neighborhood exclusivity. One speaker called aesthetic complaints “heartless” and “cruel” in the face of California’s housing shortage.

“This landmarking is clearly not in good faith,” alleged public commenter Steven Buss during the meeting. “We can no longer afford to say no to housing because some guy did something maybe at this place 100 years ago.”

Contact Victoria Stafford at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @VictoriaStaffrd.